Friday, 6 April 2012

Experts are wanted not learners

Volume 2 – A new life begins – chapter 7 – a job does not guarantee a good future – part 2 – experts are wanted not learners – post 64 – taken from chapter 31 – a life must progress – part 1 – prospects prove elusive consisting of 8 pages from 49 to 56 (405 to 412)

Time marched on and the factory continued to grow, I found the activities so interesting I often wished I was part of the manufacturing process not a security man who had no reason to be inside watching the action. I was always poking my nose in and asking questions, and some of the men doing these various jobs became quite used to my inquisitive attitude. One of the furnaces was put onto producing thick bars of special glass which later were sawn into long curved prismatic lenses. After polishing they were collected together, then one day a large metal frame arrived into which the lenses were fitted and the end product was the enormous faces of powerful lenses destined for a lighthouse somewhere in the world. On another occasion I watched specialist glass blowers making glass sheaths for valves to be used in secret electrical equipment. The strange things we see in one life time; like the Sunday morning when I strolled into the factory to watch them stripping down one of the production lines in readiness for maintenance work and a new set up for yet another product. With the removal of the machinery beneath the furnace, the remaining molten glass had been allowed to drain out of the feed pipe and fall through a hole in the floor into the cavernous cellar below.

The engineer doing the work was the man I travelled with to work each day, so we were friendly and he asked me if I wanted to see something unusual? Of course I did, so he took me down to the cellar where the glass had dropped into a large metal wagon full of water. The column of glass must have been close to 20 feet long and at the nozzle above had congealed into a mass maybe a foot thick, which gradually reduced in thickness until it reached the water in the tub below. At its lowest extent it had reduced to the thickness of a strand of hair, and was I was told full of stress having been allowed to cool quickly. After moving well back from this unusual sight the engineer pulled a metal ruler out of his pocket and lightly tapped the slender thread of glass, then he also jumped well back to safety. The result was breathtaking, for in a moment the vibrations caused by the gentle tap had run up the column of glass and on reaching the top caused the whole thing to explode into a shower of tiny pieces. Most of it landed on the main floor above but enough had come showering down to give the appearance of a snow storm which glittered in the powerful electric lights that lined the cellar.

Another process I saw which made an impression on me was the making of blocks at least a foot thick, which varied in size, from a foot square up to four feet square. When polished they had optical qualities so good that it was as if there was no glass at all. Even more impressive was the fact that this glass contained an enormous amount of lead, and was virtually radiation proof. A steel frame was then used to fit four of these blocks one behind the other creating a window four feet thick and reducing from four feet square down to one foot square. This type of window was destined for atomic power stations, laboratories, and hospitals where radiation was used for various purposes. It was clever stuff I thought and I would have enjoyed having a part in the production of such things, but the company wanted experts not learners and people such as me were not catered for. With so many wanting a job the company could pick and choose, which is why I was not impressed when I met the man who was to represent us with the various customers who were buying these amazing windows.

The man I refer to was named Derrick Denton and let me say at the outset that he was a very likeable fellow. I first noticed him when he arrived to work in the factory as an ordinary hand in the packing department; he was a man about my age with dark wavy hair, and an ordinary appearance which did not make a big impression. Neither did his demeanour and personality which did little to imprint itself upon the memory; what did bring him to my attention was when he was moved to another department after only about a month. This change of jobs kept happening at regular intervals so I began to talk to him and ask why he was not remaining in any one job for very long. I had been thinking that maybe he was proving a failure at each job they gave him and that before long he would be out of a job all together. When he told me the truth about his situation I found it hard to believe, he was it seems destined for bigger things and the company was giving him basic training in all aspects of their work. By the time he told me this we were friendly enough for me to ask him how he had managed to land in clover this way, and he explained as follows. “My father is the manager of a subsidiary company recently purchased by Pilkington Bros and he pushed them for a good job for me.” Then I asked him what he knew about the business and he said he knew nothing, so I asked him was it a good education that swung it, and he told me it was only the fact that his father had pulled strings.

I could hardly believe it, that this ordinary bloke who admitted that he would hate to try and do my job, was going to be ‘Technical Representative and Liaison Officer’ for the purpose of advising and instructing clients on the products that they had purchased from our employers. To begin with he would be involved with the radiation windows, but later they would expand his area of operation. Is this job going to be a challenge I asked and he told me that they had assured him there would be no work to do, all he had to do was drive over to the customer ask if they had any problems and report back. If there is a problem our technical people will sort it out, all you have to do is be sociable; a sinecure for which he would be paid a big fat salary. It was hard to believe that no matter how I tried a could make no progress, yet here was a man who couldn’t hold a candle to me and he was getting a job that was undemanding, and what incensed me even more was the fact that he was going to be paid a salary I would give an arm and a leg for. I did not dislike Derrick for this he was still a very likeable person, but I did feel a sense of injustice, and it is all very well to say ‘that’s life’ but it did not make me feel any better, neither that or a hundred other sayings made it right. I had always known how life worked I suppose, but most of the time I did not let myself think about it, it was only at times like this, when I had my nose rubbed in so to speak, that I felt resentment rising.

You could say I had a job which had its ups and downs and would have been enough for most people; why was I so dissatisfied? The question was not a simple one nor was it an easy one to answer, partly it was a matter of wanting to do more, that I knew I was capable of doing more. I also wanted to be recognised as having some worth; I wanted to earn more which in turn would provide a better life. It was not a case of my job being boring or dull, though it was at times, I was not getting a sense of achievement out of it. There were moments of drama and things happened which were funny, and there was a social side which helped a little, though the social structure we lived and worked in was never far away.

For about two and half years I worked as a security officer and followed that with about the same length of time working in the Progress Control Office. There was some stress in both jobs, which you accept if you think it is worth it but not so easy to live with if you do not. Shift work did not make life easy, but at least for me I had the comfort of an office and conditions I could control to some extent. For the men on the factory floor it was worse, with heavy physical work to do in some cases, and extreme heat for the men working on the furnaces. The man that tended the furnace had the worst job of all in my opinion; he had to load a scoop with a measured quantity usually about 28 to 30 lbs and when a bell rang he had to push it in to the furnace. Then he had to quickly load the scoop again ready for the next time the bell rang, which was about every 7 to 10 minutes. The temperature on the mezzanine floor was more than most people could stand for more than a few minutes before they began to sweat and feel uncomfortable. The furnace men were in it for a whole shift, and when they approached the furnace to feed it the heat singed the hair off their chest. There was often signs of stress with these fellows and one night one of them went crazy and threw a broom at the bell smashing it off the wall. A couple of days later the same man was trying to sleep during the day, and when a window cleaner disturbed him he went berserk and attacked him. He had to be replaced and never returned to the hateful bell which had made his life a misery.

Even in these extreme conditions there were times when the men had a laugh; like the occasion when a new furnace man blew himself up like a balloon; or that is what he said it felt like. Anyone who worked in high temperatures sweated continuously so that after a time they needed to replace essential minerals and salt. They were given large effervescent tablets which they would take at least every half hour or so, dissolved in a pint of water they made a very pleasant drink similar to lemonade. The new man had been given the tablets but no one had told him how they were to be taken, so he put a couple in his mouth and swallowed them. When they hit the fluids in his stomach they exploded into action and filled him with gas; he was very uncomfortable for a while but came to no real harm. The other men on the shift thought this was the funniest thing they had heard in a long time, and the poor chap had his leg pulled for weeks; he was known from that time on as ‘Gasbag’.

The funny and the serious occurred from time to time in the usual mix that life throws at you. One night one of the production lines was producing thick bars of glass that were five or six inches square and cut into lengths of maybe two feet, they were very heavy but had to be manhandled from the extrusion point into the lehr by a couple of chaps wearing heat proof overalls and asbestos gloves. In the early hours of the morning and under demanding conditions the men get tired, and inevitably one man dropped one of the bars of glass. The outcome might not have been a serious one if he had obeyed instructions, but he was not, having on rubber Wellington boots instead of the reinforced work boots he was supposed to be wearing. The razor sharp edge of the glass landed across his foot and sliced right through his toes, with the blood pouring out his mates dare not try and remove his rubber boot, so they cut the top off it and applied a tourniquet to his leg. Then they came running for me to decide what to do next; I had the keys to a well equipped surgery, but when I saw the situation announced that he needed the hospital without delay. While they carried him out to the main gate, I went to the garage and got a vehicle; a few minutes later he was in the care of the hospital. What happened after that I never discovered; he never returned to his job so we never knew whether he lost his toes or not.

It was only outside normal working hours that I had to deal with these medical emergencies, at other times we had a nurse on duty. Not all such emergencies were serious or even urgent, for example one evening I was asked to attend to a man who had burnt his bottom; I went into the factory feeling very curious about this accident, how had he managed it? He did not appear to be badly burnt so I took him to the surgery and invited him to apply burn cream to his own posterior, asking at the same time to tell me how it had happened. When he told me I found it hard to keep a straight face, and I knew that he would be the butt (to coin a phrase,) of many jokes once the facts were known. With a face as red as his backside he explained that he was an addicted smoker, and with smoking not allowed in the factory, he and his mates were in the habit of taking a toilet break for that purpose. Locking himself in the lavatory he had been answering the call of nature while lighting up a cigarette; he then popped the match into the pan and sat down again. The problem was he had not checked in the pan which had been full of toilet paper most of which was dry, so that a moment later he found himself sitting on a bonfire. I leave the rest of this story to the imagination of the reader.

An accident that was not so amusing happened to my friendly maintenance engineer with whom I had been travelling to work for some weeks. This particular night they were changing one of the machines on one production line, and he was making some supports which would be bolted to the new machine and at the other end bolted to the floor. They always did these jobs as fast as possible to get production up and running as quickly as they could, but at times they stepped outside the bounds of safety. The supports were being made of heavy steel angle iron with an angled plate at each end through which a hole had to be drilled to take the securing bolt. Instead of securing the angle iron before drilling the holes, he decided to save time by doing the job on a vertical drilling machine; while he held the piece of iron over his shoulder he began to drill. It was a large hole about an inch across that was required, so it was to be expected that the drill would bind or jamb and it did. Snatching the angle iron from his grasp the drill swung it around with great force slashing him across the face and cutting him to the bone. I got to him quickly but could not see what the damage was because there was blood everywhere, it had to be stopped fast so I applied large dressings very tightly, and got him to the hospital as quickly as I could. On the way he said that he thought he was blind, that the steel had slashed his eyes, and if he could not see he was in a real mess. I tried to reassure him but I have to admit I was not all that optimistic myself.

On this occasion the outcome was a happy one, when the hospital had cleaned him up they found the steel had hit him just above the eyebrows and his eyes were untouched. They stitched him up and a few days later he was back at work with a nice neat bandage around his head. He could not afford time off work so he was back in quick time; as far as management was concerned it was an accident for which no one could be blamed. For my part I knew it was the man’s own fault; my report should have said this, but I knew that if I did report the facts he might lose his job, so I decided to say nothing. The way I saw it was that he was a good engineer who had been trying to save his employer time and money, and nearly lost his eyesight in the process; I thought he deserved a medal not the sack.

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